There are so many endangered species across the planet, but there’s a Scot who’s doing his bit to save them.
Dr Ross McEwing was raised in Paisley, but has swapped Scotland for South East Asia to battle the trade in illegal wildlife.
What does your work in the wildlife crime trade involve?
The majority of my work is in Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and Indonesia for the UK government and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. I am helping these countries to develop the capacity to prosecute people trading in illegal wildlife. I work in labs and on DNA projects on rhino horns, elephant tusks and tigers. In 2015, more than 749 rhinos have been slaughtered for their horns in South Africa alone.
What can you find out from DNA testing?
From a single piece of ivory you can tell what species the animal is and that’s key, as trade in one species is legal, while another is not. You can determine where the animal is from, so we find linkages, just like in human forensics.
If a rhino horn turns up in Vietnam, we test it and can find out from South African data where it’s come from, down to the individual animal that has been poached. Then we can start to check who was flying between the two countries to find individuals involved in the illegal trade.
Is this the future of conservation?
Yes, it’s not always about sexy conservation projects or sleeping in tents in the wild and watching animals through binoculars. It’s not about protecting one animal any more, it’s about conserving an entire species, although we will still always need people in the field.
What used to happen was that animal samples were sent back to the UK for analysis, but that kind of colonial approach is not useful any more. Training is a big part of what I do, to build the capacity for countries to prosecute the criminals who are killing their animals.
How bad is the problem?
There are two types of wildlife crime. The trade in animals for consumption, traditional medicine or just as a show of wealth in China and South East Asia is one. But the illegal trade going to Europe and the US is a real issue.
There are huge numbers of rare lizards and reptiles being stripped out of countries for the pet trade. The rarer the animal, the more value it has and the more damaging the collection is. You see lots of seizures on the television, but seizures are irrelevant without prosecution.
What you have to remember is that if I smuggle drugs I make a lot of money, but if I get caught the consequences are very serious. If I smuggle rhino horn or elephant ivory, I am much less likely to be prosecuted. So you are going to smuggle the thing that will make you money, but won’t put you in prison for life or get you executed. Even when prosecutions are made they are low-level guys and you can stigmatise them, but they are just feeding their families. We need to target the kingpins.
Find out more by clicking HERE.
This feature originally appeared in our February 2016 edition.